A coming-of-age novel, set in New York in the 1980s, that unfolds as a series of episodes.
Fried’s first book does not break new territory so much as it revisits familiar ground. The novel revolves around Martin Kelso, 11 as the story opens and 17 when it comes to a close. During those six years, he moves from sixth grade at a boys school that has gone coed to the threshold of college. The journey is insulated by Manhattan privilege, but there is, as there must be, unanticipated bumpiness. “For my friend Kevin Johnson’s thirteenth birthday,” Fried opens one chapter, “his father ordered pizzas and a case of Coke, and then handed out Playboy magazines.” Later, Martin experiences a first kiss with his cousin Evie, four years his senior, who is the novel’s agent of chaos, a character who trails disruption in her wake. “This was the Evie I remembered—an emotional spinning top,” Martin reflects. “I never knew quite where she would come to rest.” That question, and Evie’s continued machinations, ebb and flow throughout the book. It’s an interesting strategy, a way to inject more risk into the narrative, but in the end, it backfires a little bit. This is because Evie is a more compelling character than her cousin, who seems most alive when she is around. Without her, Martin learns to run the elevator in his apartment building during an operators’ strike and almost gets arrested after buying beer. He is used by a young woman looking to get back at her ex-boyfriend. He hangs out with his friends. None of it sticks, however, or more accurately, none of it comes fully to life. The scenes resound with a kind of nodding recognition, charged less from within than by the recollections of its readers, the memories of adolescence they provoke. Only when Fried returns to Evie and her troubles does the book re-engage again.
“None of this really matters,” one character says, and it’s hard not to feel as if she is referring to the novel itself.